Open Our Borders

In the February issue (page 4), I wrote about the serious labor problems facing the hotel industry. The issue was the widespread dissatisfaction many lodging workers have with their jobs, leading to high turnover, poor service and union activism. There's another side to the same story, but the good news is that the industry is taking swift, decisive steps to address the problem.

The debate is immigration and the balance between interests of national security and the legitimate needs of many businesses — but especially the hospitality industry — for immigrant workers to take the jobs many Americans are unwilling to fill.

The AH&LA recently joined with the National Restaurant Association and nearly a half-million businesses to pressure Congress to pass legislation that would open our borders enough to help solve the labor squeeze but not enough to allow illegals or, worse yet, terrorists to sneak into the country. Complicating the issue is a growing sentiment among many people — particularly those on the right wing and/or in the border states where illegal immigration is a daily problem — that we should close our borders so tightly that no one passes through. I sympathize with those affected by the many ramifications resulting from illegal immigration, but building a wall around the country, either literally or figuratively, has never worked nor never will.

The proposals supported by AH&LA try to steer a middle course that recognizes legitimate security concerns as well as fears that U.S. workers may be displaced by foreigners, yet attempts to address current and future labor needs of our country.

This issue is important for you, even if your hotel is in Nebraska or another state far from the borders. Any shortage of hotel workers in Arizona, Texas, California or other border states has a ripple effect throughout the country. Even harder hit are seasonal resorts that generally need peak numbers of workers during specific seasons.

“We're facing a mounting labor shortage, and it is being felt in every Congressional district across the country,” says AH&LA's new high-powered lobbyist Marlene Colucci. “Personal service is the lifeblood of the lodging industry. Unlike jobs in other sectors of the economy, these positions cannot be automated and cannot be outsourced. Hiring workers to fill critical service positions is one of the industry's most urgent issues.”

The coalition spearheaded by the AH&LA and NRA — but also including AAHOA, the state lodging associations, the major hotel chains and 30 independent properties — recently sent a letter to the U.S. Senate asking it to take action on the issue beyond what was passed in the House of Representatives. As the letter points out, that bill (H.R. 4437) focuses only on border enforcement, not on the larger issues associated with immigration. Proposed legislation in the Senate has a good chance of passing as it carries the bipartisan weight of Senators John McCain, Edward Kennedy and others. President Bush, too, has endorsed the concept of a temporary worker program, while properly insisting on tight controls of our borders.

Set in backdrop to this debate is another issue that also relates to national security, border control and the health of the U.S. tourism industry. After years of arm-twisting by the likes of Bill Marriott and other tourism heavyweights, the federal government recently launched a long-term initiative to make it easier for foreign tourists to visit America.

The plan calls for a number of low- and high-tech methods to speed up processing of visas and to make foreign visitors feel more welcome when they arrive in the U.S.

This issue, while not as immediate to most hoteliers, is just as important for the long-run prosperity of all of you.

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